This video traces the origins of consumerism to the 18th century. It coincides with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. It poses an interesting question: could we design a society where consumerism and high-mindedness are not polar opposites – might we have wealth and virtue, rather than the stark choice of consumerism or poverty?
Consumerism was supercharged after World War Two. Industrial capacity mushroomed to equip the war effort and all of that enterprise had to find new markets. Marketers aligned production systems with a rethinking of societal design, to optimise market opportunities. The industrial machine was at full steam and needed willing customers. Victor Lebow articulated a new creed of consumerism.
“Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption… We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.” (Victor Lebow, in the Journal of Retailing, 1955)
The marketers had new tools to shape the developing consumerist culture. Television offered unprecedented access for marketers into family homes.
“And television achieves three results to an extent no other advertising medium has ever approached. First, it creates a captive audience. Second, it submits that audience to the most intensive indoctrination. Third, it operates on the entire family. “(Victor Lebow, in the Journal of Retailing, 1955)
Another foundation of the consumerist culture were the concepts of planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence as explained in this video (starting at 12 minutes 40 seconds).
Perhaps the purest expression of perceived obsolescence (so far) is the smart phone, with new models offing possibly a marginally larger screen or a flasher camera, generating shopping frenzy. What’s next?
Consumerism and food
At the heart of many of the problems we identify with food is its change of status from something for nourishment to a marketable commodity. The need for industrial food manufacturers to enable food to last on long journeys to market and in warehouses and on shop shelves has necessitated processing. Sugar and salt preserve. Pasteurisation slows down decomposition and dehydration and chemical additives extend shelf life.
Unlike industrialisation and colonisation consumerism appears to march on virtually uncontested. Victor Lebow and his like have shaped our behaviour more profoundly than he ever could have imagined.